Jump to content
 
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

Daily Dose #1: The Nasty Man in Black (The Opening Scene of Fritz Lang's M)


Guest Richard Edwards

Recommended Posts

I haven't seen this entire film yet, so these are my "fresh" eyes on it.


 


For me, GROWING DREAD is the best description of the mood in Lang's opening of M. There is a heavy, tight feeling in the angles of view and sharply contrasting light and dark visual spaces.


 


The children playing in a circle in the concrete courtyard are not lighthearted; each one anticipates the possibility of being singled out of the game.  The narrow staircase up which the mother struggles with her laundry basket clearly adds to her burdens.


 


The woman in the apartment takes the laundry basket and you can feel her want to just drop it in the corner of the little room, though she doesn't - she just places it on the floor and turns around to continue washboard scrubbing.  There is very little dialogue between the first and second women, whose bare verbal exchange is as mundane as the passing of the laundry basket.


 


The first woman expresses worry over the children's choice of game-song - it is dark and foreboding.


 


The second woman can only say that at least the children are singing something - they are alive.


 


She looks up in hope at the cuckoo clock as it strikes the noon hour, but the cuckoo bird doesn't come out and make twelve chirps.


 


In the street scene, the sound of traffic feels odd because there are no other ambient street noises:  where are the newspaper hawkers, people talking to one another, bumping into one another?  The usual, comforting cacophany of a city street is (subtly?) missing.


 


It becomes more obvious that something very bad is about to happen when the little blonde girl steps off the curb and is nearly hit by a car.


 


Finally, there is the foreboding sight of the wanted poster, advertising a reward for any information leading to the capture of a murderer.  It is at last overshadowed by the black profile of a man in a hat as he leans down to talk to the little girl who only moments ago narrowly escaped being struck by a vehicle.


 


This opening of M says, with no ambiguity, and with an expanding force, "This is not going to be a happy-go-lucky heartwarming story with a happy ending."


 


The opening of this film demonstrates through the use of visual contrast, scene framing, and the deliberate use and non-use of various sounds and dialogue, that the monster under our bed is very real.  It imposes troubling questions in our mind right away: What is this dreary place? Why are the children playing such a mean game? Most importantly, who is about to get hurt?


 


Link to post
Share on other sites

         NOTE:  My apologies.  I only discovered this course over the weekend of the 12th and enrolled late, so I am catching up.

          There is a building sense of foreboding throughout this sequence; from the words of the childrens song, to the foreshadowing of the woman who advises as long as you can hear the children sing, all is well.  It seems the woman who cannot stop the singing, will be unable to prevent evil from occurring either.
          The dialogue is spare and made me focus on the sounds and lack of sounds.  The ordinary sounds of daily life are heightened in that there are few of them.  The bouncing ball fairly punctuated an overall quiet, adding to the tension in my opinion.

Link to post
Share on other sites

The feeling of paranoia--though the characters in the film don't seem paranoid, just burdened. The *audience* becomes increasingly paranoid, though, as the sequence goes on.

 

The figures in the sequence are shot from above, from behind, from below, always as if someone is watching them, and the pacing is slow, slow, slow--someone is watching and waiting. That's what makes this film so creeeeeeeeepy!

Link to post
Share on other sites

The overall feeling produced by the opening scene of the film M I would describe as one of impending danger and loss.

First, we are shown a circle of children innocently playing a rather sinister game which forebodes what will later happen in the film and what we will soon see and hear has already happened: the abduction and murder of a child by a mysterious menacing man. This scene is shot from above, which gives the eerie sense that someone is watching.

Next we see the mother of Else, the murder's next victim, as she prepares dinner for her daughter who is anticipated home from school at any moment. Then we see Else playing with a ball that she is unknowingly bouncing off a poster which informs the public of a child murderer who is loose in Berlin and puts a reward out for his capture. As the camera pans right away from Else onto the ball bouncing on the murderer reward poster a dark shadowed figure of the profile of a man enters the frame and approaches Else.

I think it is interesting that Lang chooses not to show the face of the murderer right away in this film. Like the public in the film, we as an audience do not immediately know the identity of the killer, this is a very effective means of creating suspense. In addition, we are shown more of what is not that what is - we never see a murder take place, instead we see the absence of the child indicated by an abandoned balloon, the foreboding cuckoo clock that creates a shadow and with each tick or pulse, in turn raises and intensifies the mother and audiences pulse, as it is becoming clear this girl will never return home.

I have previously viewed this film but watched it again for the purposes of this course. I had originally watched it in the context of being an Alfred Hitchcock fan but I can also see how the genre of Film Noir owes a lot to the brilliant dynamics of Lang's M. It is not about showing the crime; it's about portraying what comes before and after. It's about illustrating feeling rather than action and in turn creating tension and ultimately suspense. It's about shadows and darkness and light and a precision in the cinematic frame that is unfortunately all too absent in modern cinema. Of course as I continue watching more Film Noir pieces my ideas will both expand and become more solidified, but these are my opening thoughts.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi people, nice to meet you all!

 

I'm just trying to catch up once I've enroled on this course a couple days ago.

 

What I liked most at this scene is the sensation that "bad things are gonna happen". And the tools Mr. Lang's uses to create the tension are just so well built! We're watching a child play with her ball against a public text warning society that a murderer is on the streets. And just soon after that a mysterious man appears to chat with her. A terrific example of how smart tools are just really creepy, no matter how much technology you have to develop it.

 

I'm renting the movie to watch it this weekend!

Link to post
Share on other sites

I consider dramatic score to be one of the hallmarks of noir, but this opening shows that the power of sound to build tension need not lie only with music.  In fact, music would likely remove some of the tension from this opening.  The children's game has dark content to build a sense of foreboding.  Alas, it could still be a game, until one of the parents says, "as long of we can hear them."  As a viewer, I find the cuckoo startling and unsettling.  The reaction of the mother, however, shows relief and even joy.  The tolling of the bells accompanied by the mother tasting her food heighten this contrast between anticipation of something good and of something bad.  This play between the safe and the unsafe happens again - the child narrowly dodges a honking car, and then is nicely aided by a police officer.  Again, without the need of music, we are given the impression that something bad will happen with the back and forth scenes of mother setting the table and daughter tossing her ball (seemingly in no hurry).  Another contrast: the carelessness with which she tosses the ball up against a sign that warns her to be very careful.  And, then, that shadow - this introduction must have had a tremendous influence of the American filmmakers who would make films noir.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Right from the beginning, dread is established with a black screen and a little girl named Elsie chanting a menacing nursery rhyme about “the man in black” who butchers children. When the singing child and her playmates are revealed, it is an overhead, voyeuristic shot of them facing each other in a minimalist setting with no protection, and only surrounded only each other’s shadows reflected on the ground. A woman from upstairs yells at Elsie to stop singing the dreadful song. After the woman leaves, Elsie continues to sing, but her voice eventually fades into silence before the scene cuts.

 

The above is ominous because in the following scene, Elsie's mother tells the first woman that as long as the children are singing, they know that the children are safe. This also shows that however the children and adults are going about their day as “normal,” the looming threat of the child murderer still hangs over the neighborhood, particularly weighing on the tense adults.  

 

Afterwards, the scene with Elsie's mother is intercut with events outside the building:

 

-The clock strikes noon. The mother looks up and smiles in relief, getting rid of the soap on her hands from the wash.

 

-Parents/guardians are symbolically surrounding the closed doors of the public school- signifying that the woman is looking forward to her child coming home from school.   

 

-Elsie's mother is cooking is cooking.

 

-Elsie is on her way home from school, is signified by a blaring driver from crossing the street too soon, guided by a policeman, and surrounded by bright lighting showing off his shadow.

 

-Woman tenderly sets the table.

 

At this point, Elsie is no longer in the "safe" zone she was in before and is now in front of a signpost surrounded by darkness, obscuring any trace (shadow) of her. Lang cuts to the poster, on the post, warning of the dreaded child murderer on the loose. Then, the shadow of the culprit (“the man in black”) eventually appears, strikes up a conversation with Elsie, and inquires of her name. It's the first time the audience hears her name stated and it's the last we hear from little Elsie. 

 

It’s interesting that the opening to M is related to film noir before the genre took off in the aftermath of WWII. The sweat, clothes, chores, and even the groaning of the woman carrying, a basketful of laundry up the stairs, very plainly represents the struggling working class without any pretenses whatsoever. Use of shadows (lighting techniques the Germans mastered before long before Hollywood did) and sounds are effectively used to show a sense of upcoming doom.

Link to post
Share on other sites

The main emotion that the opening of M invokes is one of dread. By showing us women engaged in the drudgery of a completely normal day, Lang invites us to question why he has chosen to show us this day in particular. We become aware that this is not going to be a "completely normal day" after all.

 

At this point, we  know that something is going to happen, and the chanting of the children (and later the wanted poster) provides context for what that will be. 

 

When we see Hana's mother setting the table so lovingly while Hana walks home from school Lang is telling us that these characters are the ones to whom that "something" is going to happen. Although we have barely met these characters, he has provided us with enough information to make us worry about them. We are aware (largely from the care taken in setting the table) that Hana's mother loves her very much. We are also aware that Hana will not be eating that bowl of soup. When the dark man asks Hana her name, we already know what happens next. It is a great piece of visual storytelling.

 

Some of the noir elements which really stood out to me were the way that Lang avoids showing us buildings, yet makes their weight and presence seem real and suffocating. We see the balcony with laundry hanging on it from an oblique angle. The guard rail looks like prison bars, the empty shirts like ghosts. Perhaps they symbolize faceless criminals who will never be caught. Of course, the most noir moment of the entire thing is when we see the shadow of Peter Lorre falling across the wanted poster. Shadows were very important in silent film, and went on to become one of the most defining characteristics of films noir.

 

Sorry for the late start - I found out about the class fairly late and am rushing to catch up :-) Fortunately I work at Scarecrow Video in Seattle, so I have access to a remarkable collection of noir and can catch up on the stuff I missed on TCM.

Link to post
Share on other sites

In the first four minutes of M, there are three separate incidents combining innocence and danger. First, obviously, there's the children happily playing with their "song" about the man in black and the cleaver. Then when Elsie starts to cross the street but has to be saved at the last second by policeman. And finally when it's revealed that she's bouncing her ball against a poster offering a reward for the murderer.

 

I suggest that there are two reasons for the combination of play and dread. The first reason is just to set up a general sense of ominous foreboding. But it's also relevant to the movie to tie the innocence in with the sense of doom. Not only do the innocent children get trapped by the events of the movie, but even the murderer himself feels helpless.

Link to post
Share on other sites

In this powerful opening scene from Fritz Lang's "M", the overhead camera shot and lack of musical background create a somewhat voyeuristic feeling, as if we the audience are outsiders looking in, much as the killer would be. The naïve children play a game that eliminates them one-by-on in turn, also as the murderer would do.The camera moves slowly and silently- as a stalker. Overall there is a sense of foreboding. The woman carrying the large laundry basket up the stairs seems keyed up despite her exhaustion. The laundress is uneasy, her face softening only slightly after she is jarred by the sound of the cuckoo-clock. as the scene shifts to the people waiting in front of a school the mood is still sober, even as the children are dismissed. One little girl, alone, steps into the street and is nearly struck down by a motor vehicle, heightening our sense that something bad will happen. She bounces a ball beneath a poster offering a reward for the identity of a murderer, and then we see the shadow of a man looming over her and we are certain of her doom. Lang gives unemotional, equal attention to all the subjects in this opening scene, allowing the audience to draw our own conclusions about the possible motives and fates of each. We sense the discomfort of the laundry women. We are alarmed by the lack of fear expressed by the children as they sing a song about the man in black as they play their game. And when we know that the "shadow" that approaches the little girl in the street is that "man in black" we feel as helpless as a child. With this film, Fritz Lang codified many of the elements of film noir- equal lighting of subject and scene, use of both realistic and formalistic film work, and the ambiguity of right/wrong. In the end it is the criminal class that gets the "bad" guy.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Fear. 


In the children it is an abstract idea. The distance the camera opens with, to me, implies the distance the children feel to the concept of death or the concept of the creature stalking them. They play games and they entertain the idea to scare each other, but its all in the playful manner of children. 


As the scene progresses, we follow the adults, and the camera grows tighter and more claustrophobic, tightening in on that very real fear in the mother as she performs her tasks, casting long shadows in turn. 


This culminates at the end of the clip with the child playfully interacting with the very thing that's trying to prevent whats about to happen to her. 


And the full shadow of Peter Lorre, like the culmination of all the use of shadow in the film thus far, cast against the warning. 


 

Link to post
Share on other sites

 Well M's use of shadow and German expressionism lighting makes everything seem easy and dangerous.

Many of the filmmakers of Film Noir the eastern European and German most of whom immigrated to America.
Taking their experiences, set design and storytelling from the German expressionist movement of the stage to American cinema.
Fritz Lang listed greatest director from the school of German expressionism. Lang years is long camera shots and high contrast shadows to make the viewer uneasy. Keeping M in the shadow tells your brain there's something wrong with this person.
The kids game is a disturbing song which I guess heads to the atmosphere. The sounds are supposed to be striking which also adds to the atmosphere of dread.
Link to post
Share on other sites

Fascination is the word I can think of. The children is fascinated with the dark times. The little girl's death was inevitable. She was the leader of the horrible song so it would seem she had to be punished for her rebellion of the adults. 

I agree, the woman who is clearly disturbed (as we are) tries to warn the mother (and the viewer) about the children's game.  The church bells clearly spell impending doom and it is topped off by the shadow that falls across the little girl as she reads the 'Wanted for Murder' poster.

Link to post
Share on other sites

The combination of words that I would use to describe the clip are:(1)suspenseful; (2) eerie; and (3) tense.Lang creates these emotions at the very moment the clip opens with just the sounds of children playing---without actually seeing them we immediately wonder where the children are--- but just before our imagination can get the best of us they appear before us amidst this bright focus light.We are eased in seeing them but as we focus in at what should be sounds of normal childlike laughter and game-play,instead, we hear them engaged in morbid play.Feelings are further perpetuated by the dim lighting as the camera leaves the children to provide a glimpse of the tenement dwelling,the low mood of drudgery felt by the women as they carry on with their mundane tasks and routine of daily household chores and caring for their children. From this depiction, we can see how tired and unhappy these women are with how their lives have turned out and by their lack of enthusiasm.As the camera takes us back and forth to various activities/everyday life about the city and the tenement, we see how life has taken a toll on these families as we watch the children going about independently void of the watchful eye of parental guidance/protection. It is at this point that the eerie feelings we have felt begin to turn into anxiousness and tension because we all know what can happen when children are allowed to roam public streets unattended to---and then, all our fears are confirmed by the camera zooming in on the little girl,the post and the shadow of a dark,eerie figure of a man asking this innocent little girl her name and all sorts of questions to befriend her....at that moment we are all at the edge of our seats... a parent's worst nightmare is about to come true.

Suspense,tension, uneasy feelings of eeriness and ensuing fear I believe are the elements that go into creating the 'film noir' and Lang successfully shows us the importance of invoking these feelings at the film's beginning in order to captivate our attention and to go on to unfold the story.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I love the suspense that is created with everyday actions. Kids sing and play about things like this all the time, for example Charlie Charlie is popular right now. It creates this struggle between real and imagined danger. Especially with the line if you can hear them singing their fine.

 

There is also a feeling of dred created with the silence and sound. Every time it got quiet I was waiting for something to happen then we get to the busy noises of the city and it almost puts you on alert.

 

I feel like the clip does a really good job of giving ypu a sense of waiting.

Link to post
Share on other sites

The first thing that comes to mind for me is the words "innocence" and maybe "ominous." The fact that the children are happily playing a game that involves a song about a serial killer that has been terrorizing the city is a great way of foreshadowing things to come. The little girl running into the (presumed) killer by a post that offers a reward for him is a pretty fantastic way to set the tone of the movie. I loved the silhouette of the killer in the shadows and I think that's definitely one of the hallmarks of a noir film. The dark lighting and the shadows play into the mysterious sense of dread that overwhelms you from the start. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

If you just joined last week, you will be added to the distribution list starting on the following Monday. We update our email list every Friday for the next week's delivery.

 

If you want all of the Daily Doses, they are all archived on a single page in Canvas, just go here: https://learn.canvas.net/courses/748/pages/daily-doses-of-darkness-main-page

 

There is also a link to the Daily Doses page on the Home page of Canvas. 

 

Enjoy! 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Frtiz Lang's "M" has been on my list of movies to watch for years but it hasn't ever made it to the top of the list. I do love a good thriller, and who doesn't enjoy Peter Lorre? But, I digress... 

 

I DVRed the movie while I was out of town last month but still haven't made the time to sit down to enjoy it. I want to truly watch this one, not half-watch it while I'm multi-tasking. This one deserves all my attention and I know it! I was captivated entirely by just this short opening clip, so I know I'm going to enjoy the whole movie -- it's going to find a home on my DVR until I watch it. I promised myself that much!

 

Honestly, in only those four minutes I could tell the master was at work. Lang was a puppeteer when it came to directing his audience's emotions, and he knew it. The very first scenes with those shabbily dressed children so cheerfully enjoying a game that you slowly come to realize is about a murderer gave me the chills so quickly, that I had to smile and hand it to the director - tip my hat, so to say - and accept that I was walking down the garden path with my eyes wide open. 

 

There was an ominous edge about the entirety of the opening scenes, almost as though we were the intruders, watching and observing these people's lives when we had no right to be doing so. There was a tightness or a claustrophobia to the way the camera was used that made me question who was doing the watching... was it the audience or was it someone else? It was almost as though the man in shadow was there the entire time but only stepped into view, playing his shadow across the frame when the director felt the suspense had built up into enough of a palpable, living entity to finally give a voice. 

 

I was also struck by the innocence and implied weightlessness of the children who lived in this world filled with violence, death, and harsh realities but felt the safe confines of home and the comparison of their mothers who looked harried, and worn living under the strain of the heavy weight of an unknown enemy and constant fear. It was a severe juxtaposition, to be sure. 

 

I'm really looking forward to seeing the entire movie now!

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 2 weeks later...

It's a real treat to see the opening of "M" again. I've taught the film previously, but primarily for its contributions to the beginnings of synchronized sound in cinema. Watching the opening this time, what drew me was not only Fritz Lang's judicious use of sound, but his juxtaposition of offscreen sound with his camera work. Listening to the timbre of the recorded voices and the actual quality of the recording itself as Lang's camera tilted away from the unseen children to the balcony over their courtyard, I realized he was foreshadowing the children's absence. Simultaneously, he was in a way flashing us forward, and placing us in the minds of the adults who would remember that macabre playground chant when their children went missing.

Link to post
Share on other sites

As I get ready for the Final Exam, I revisited the scene and noticed that when the woman shouts at them, the children stop singing "that awful song"... for awhile. There's a very awkward and uneasy pause after which the children start singing again. Which made me think of how "unstoppable" this "evil" thing, represented by a song, can be. Even though you try, scream at it, and do anything... it will come back.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Sorry i'm a little late to the discussion. I think the mood that Fritz Lang is trying to create in the opening scene is a sense of dread and impending doom. We hear the children singing a song about a murderer which tries to set the scene that not all is well in the community. We hear from one of the women that we've heard enough about the murderer and we hear the response that the other woman is just glad to hear the children because it means there safe we're possibly being told that children could be the intended or potential victims of this murderer. The time seems to matter to us as the viewer because the woman looks relieved and her actions seem to change to get dinner ready. The time is significant to us as it's when the children are coming out of school. It's like we're watching the 2 stories unfold together we're watching the mother set up two places for dinner and then we see little Elsie bouncing the ball it sets in that feeling of uneasiness that something is going to happen to poor little Elsie although there are people on the street she seems deserted and alone. I think true film noir style happens now in this scene were the visuals really matter because now we're getting to find out about this elusive murderer not verbally but visually the poster tells us alot it's though Fritz Lang wants us to really take notice of this poster and then in true film noir style we see the shadow of a man and the first time we meet him he's standing in front of his own wanted poster i find it really effective. I also can't help feeling a sense of sadness that poor Elsie may become his next intended victim and her Mother is setting the dinner table helpless and has no idea that her daughter is in potential danger. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Archived

This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

© 2020 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Settings
×
×
  • Create New...